Overview of Intellectual Property Law for Architects: Copyrights

Written by Brandon Zuniga

Picture of copyright law bookThis article is part of a series of articles addressing intellectual property law for architects. Intellectual property law encompasses copyrights, trademarks, trade secrets and patents. This particular article focuses on basic copyright law and copyrights for architects.

Definition of Copyright

Generally, an original work fixed in a tangible medium of expression is a copyright. For example, a computer hard drive is a tangible medium. Copyright protection covers the expression of an idea, such as a specific house, but it does not cover the idea itself, for example, any building functioning as a house. Additionally, copyright protection does not extend to features of a work that are purely utilitarian.

Once a copyrightable work is fixed in a tangible medium, it is automatically protected by copyright law. (See 17 U.S.C. § 102, 302, 408.) Copyrighted works could include examples such as:

  • Architectural plans
  • Buildings
  • Sculptures
  • Drawings
  • Articles
  • Books

Owner of a Copyright

Generally, the author of a work holds copyright ownership. However, if a work is a “work made for hire,” for example, as specified in a contract or as a result of being made by an employee in the scope of employment, then the ownership of the work vests in the employer.

Accordingly, an architectural firm may own the copyrights for many architectural plans, rather than an architect employed by the firm or the client who hired the architectural firm.

Copyright Registration

Although copyrights come into existence automatically, they are not automatically registered with the U.S. Copyright Office. Registering a copyright is important because remedies and damages for infringement of a copyright can be significantly limited in the absence of registration. You cannot file a lawsuit without copyright registration.

Duration of a Copyright

For works created on or after January 1, 1978, copyright protection typically lasts for life of the author plus 70 years.

More Factors That Affect the Strength of Copyrights

Copyrights are not created equally. The strength and enforceability of a copyright can vary based on many factors. For example, factors can include:

  • The type of work at issue (e.g., a book versus a building);
  • A work’s degree of originality;
  • The extent to which the work merely embodies facts;
  • The extent to which a work merely embodies utilitarian features.

We will cover a more detailed treatment of these topics in future articles.

Do You Have Questions About Copyright Law?

If you have questions about copyright law or copyright protection, we can help. Contact the Dallas copyright lawyers at Carstens & Cahoon, LLP. We are happy to discuss your situation and legal options during a free consultation. Call us today at 972-528-9039 or fill out our online contact form.